What are you seeing, as far as the pandemic’s effect on relationships — both in your own practice and with other members of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers?
Every day brings a new surprise about things that are happening to couples, particularly couples that are no longer living together. When the pandemic first started, the Academy together with the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, put together a list of seven guidelines for parents, particularly those parents dealing with an order where there are periods of possession, child support and all the kinds of things that come into play when people no longer are a couple.
We were addressing an immediate need. In March, when a lot of the lockdowns happened, it was spring break. And during spring break, under most people’s family law orders, one parent or the other had possession. So a big question that came up was: Do I have to return the child? Or, do I get to keep the child?
Our governor in Texas sent out an order that said even though schools aren’t in session, we’re going to pretend, for the purposes of these orders, that school still is in session.
We were getting phone calls: Do I have to return the kids? My ex-husband is saying he won’t return them.
And then there are fights about safety. Is the other person keeping safe? Are they not keeping safe? Are they social distancing? Are they having parties?
Everything that’s going on across the nation was escalated to a monumental degree in our family law cases because — I’m sure this comes as no surprise — people who are no longer a couple don’t tend to trust each other.
As the pandemic winds on, what sorts of effects are you seeing?
A couple of conflicts are being highlighted: finances and parenting issues.
With child support or spousal support — with any court orders where people are agreeing to take care of each other’s financial duties — when people don’t have the finances, there’s going to be a struggle.
The pandemic’s economic fallout has impacted people’s ability to pay child support, and each parent and the children may have greater financial needs. If kids are no longer going to school, it may cost more to take care of the kids, to cover needs that schools were meeting. That’s going to cause all sorts of difficulties.
Add that to the parents’ other struggles about their children. Are they going to school? Are they going to school virtually or in person? What kind of roles will each parent take — who’s going to sacrifice their career if it’s needed for remote schooling?
Around the country, those issues are getting addressed in a patchwork fashion. In some places courts are open, and they can address all the normal things. But in other places, like Houston, we’re doing well just to address the emergencies.
What are you seeing with couples who are still together? Does the pandemic put more pressure on their relationships?
It exposes difficulties in relationships as though it were a magnifying glass. Difficulties get escalated.
When things are difficult, parents or couples that have good communication skills will be fine. They’ll be taxed because this is a highly conflicted time. But they’ll get through it because they’ve got the tools. They know how to argue constructively, how to walk away when things are not going well, and how to do it in a way that is not running away from the problem but addressing it in a productive way.
Couples who don’t have good communication skills — couples who are conflicted by personality disorders or traits, couples that are conflicted because they don’t have good coping skills — they’re going to have a lot of problems. We’ve seen a rise in domestic violence calls.
And based on the Academy’s survey, we’re now seeing a rise in calls about getting a divorce. That came as a surprise to us. The primary reason identified for the calls is not, as I would have guessed, issues that COVID-19 has raised involving custody and child support. It’s seeking a divorce.
This was a survey that the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers did, asking members what they’re seeing?
We did a survey in April, then we did a follow-up recently. At first, in April, the pandemic caused a notable drop in business for family lawyers across the country. Business seems to be up now — and calls for divorce are on the rise.
Are people in lockdown thinking, “I can’t take it; I’ve got to get out of this marriage”?
They’re at least thinking about that. Whether they take action is the next question.
This is one of those times that speaking things out of hate — under high emotion, or under the influence of something that makes you act without impulse control — is not a wise decision.
Let’s say that I’m fighting with my husband, I’ve had it, and I throw out the word “divorce.” Why might I regret that?
Sometimes when you say something like that, you regret it if you didn’t mean it. You say the D-word, and your spouse says, “OK, let’s go!”
In some couples, one of the spouses has been saying the D-word so often for so long, it really rings hollow — until we serve divorce papers.
And yes, we are filing divorce papers. The pandemic has not stopped filings. It slowed them down, but they’ve picked back up. Most of our offices are seeing as many divorce cases as they were this time last year, if not a little bit more.
I suspect — and the survey supports this — that we’re going to have an upsurge of people wanting to end relationships.
What are the difficulties in separating right now? The pandemic makes everything harder. But separation seems especially hard.
We’ve already talked about finances. So if there’s been strain on the financial parts of the couple, that will aggravate how they get through this divorce.
We’ve got to figure out whether somebody is going to move out of the house. Is it possible? Or is it possible that this couple could stay together during the divorce? Maybe, maybe not. Or is it financially feasible for them both to move out? Maybe, maybe not. They may need to sell something in order to make that happen.
Generally speaking, when a divorce is filed, temporary orders go into place that prevent people from absconding with monies and and taking action without the consent of the other party. But now things are more complicated because we can’t get to court as quickly.
In places where we can’t get to court, early-stage mediations can come to the rescue. If both sides have a lawyer, we can usually agree to find a neutral person to help us mediate through the mess — how we’re going to address temporary orders, where the children go, where they go to school, where are people going to live, who pays for what — to take care of all those little preliminary details before we get to the divorce stage.
Virtual therapy has also come to the rescue. In our consultations with clients, it is important that we ask whether they’re sure there’s no chance of reconciliation. Most of our lawyers have a stable of mental health professionals that they refer clients to — and remote-access therapy is a boon. I don’t have to find somebody that’s geographically convenient to someone.
We don’t want people to make this life-changing decision simply because of COVID. That’s not good for anybody. It’s not good for their children. It’s not good for the couple. And it’s not good for society.
Do you have a sense of which couples are just stressed by COVID and which have deeper problems?
I’ve read a couple of things about that. One piece of advice is, “Compare the arguments before COVID and the arguments happening during COVID.”
If the subject matter is the same, COVID is going to escalate that. If the subject matter is COVID-related — safety and social distancing, whether or not we’re going to wear a mask, whether or not we’re going to travel — that seems more COVID-related.
If I’m thinking about separating from my spouse or partner, what should I do?
The first thing you should do is make a communication to somebody who knows what they’re talking about — a firm or a lawyer who is not necessarily intent on filing divorces. You want somebody who will ask you the questions that make you think. You want information so that before you make the decision, you have enough data to know how separation or divorce is going to look.
It’s not unusual for me — or for other lawyers — to have a consultation, and never hear from the person again. What they needed was the information that divorce was not what they wanted and is certainly not what they needed at this time.
How do I find a good lawyer?
You’re going to have to do research. Talk to friends who’ve gone through a divorce and find out what their experience was. If you go to the American Academy website, there’s about 130 of us in Texas. Most of them will give you good advice as to whether you need them.
If both parties agree that they want a divorce, you probably don’t need to spend a lot of money on that; we can get that paperwork done fairly reasonably. But if there’s going to be high conflict, you want someone who has that skill set. Lawyers’ firms that have associates can handle the wide range.
You want to see what the ratings are. There’s avvo.com and all sorts of ratings for lawyers.
It’s worthwhile to talk to a couple of lawyers. It’s like picking a therapist or a doctor: You want somebody who matches your needs but who is not simply going to mirror what you want to hear. You want somebody who will give you a reality check.
In Texas, a lot of statutes are formula-based. So if a lawyer promises, “I can get you 90 percent of the estate,” that’s just not realistic. You want somebody who will say, “We start with the presumption of a 50-50 division, and we move from there. We start with the presumption that the child support guidelines are in effect.”
In those consultations, we talk about whether or not it is financially feasible for people to get a divorce at this time. For some of our couples, it simply isn’t. It just is not going to be financially feasible.
What does that look like? Why would divorce not be feasible?
Economy of scale happens when you’re a couple. Costs get divided. Two will not live for the same price that they’re going to live as one. You’re going to have double rent or house payments. You’re going to have utilities. You’re going to have transportation.
People will need jobs, and it’s pretty hard to find a job right now — especially if somebody has been out of the workforce and needs to go through training, etc.
To create a way for people to get a divorce when finances are strained, lawyers need good information. Do you have family resources that you can depend on? Do you have a friend or somebody that you could move in with?
Now, let me add something important: If there is a threat of family violence, or any actual family violence, skip the discussion on finances and make yourself safe. That is the single most important thing. During COVID, as I mentioned, we’ve seen a rise in family violence calls, and the incidence of intimate violence that ends in death is also going up.
In Texas, we allowed alcohol to be delivered to your house. Well, if you’ve already got a strained relationship and coping skills are bad, it’s not a good idea to add that accelerant to the fire.
I’m interested that, in cases where abuse is not part of the equation, couples who are talking with divorce lawyers may now be trying to figure out how to stay together. Do you have clients who have done that?
We do. In fact, I had four cases that were pending when COVID struck back in March. Those couples decided, “Let’s put the whole case on hold and try to work this out.” Unfortunately, two of those have now opted to go back into the divorce process.
I would hope that informed clients would try to make a decision, “Is this the right time to get a divorce?” If they have not tried marriage counseling, they need to try marriage counseling.
One of the recommendations that we give to parents in the divorce process is completely applicable to all people in relationships: Find a place to be generous and kind. Being a married person is a job. It is hard. It is really, really hard. It takes a lot of work. And now, with the pandemic, add to that the strain of being underfoot with each other, of not being able to get out of the house and have independence.
You can do all sorts of things to calm that fire. And that’s important. When both members of the couple are in charged emotional states, that’s not the time to decide whether divorce is something they really want. It shouldn’t be taken flippantly.
We’re lucky in Houston. Think about those people in Manhattan: Not only were they stuck in teeny-tiny little apartments, but even getting out in the hallway was dangerous. At least in our area, you can get in your car and you can drive around 610 for a little — just to be separated.
What else should we be thinking about now, with COVID and our relationships?
Maybe one way to help strengthen a relationship is to talk about that with each other — to say, “What would help in this situation?” — and have those hard conversations.
Before you get into a fight, ask: Is this fight worthwhile? Consider that Eastern philosophy of avoiding the war until you’re prepared for it.
Marriage counselors recommend that couples have date night. Well, date night is hard now when you can’t go anywhere. But is there something special you can do?
Try to remember what got the two of you together and replicate that.
Try to figure out a way to give space when space is at a premium. And again, try to be kind. And be generous.
It’s amazing to me what people who have sworn their love in front of witnesses are willing to do to each other during a divorce. You really should avoid that if you can.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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